Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Motion, 3-D gaming right at home at CES

Las Vegas, Nevada (CNN) -- The world's largest video game companies weren't about to miss an opportunity to get their consoles and hand-helds in front of a cutting-edge audience.

Microsoft and Sony each displayed their game systems prominently in their respective booths at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Even Nintendo, which usually skips over the gadget conference, had executives on hand for interviews, and hosted reporters for firsthand sessions with game systems.

Perennially sprinkled around the CES show floor are televisions, computers, home appliances, cameras and other gizmos. But games are often used primarily to show off the capabilities of a new laptop but not as the focus.

Gaming isn't much a part of CES culture because console and game software makers generally save big announcements for the annual Los Angeles, California, convention called E3.

That was not the case at this year's CES.

Microsoft announced a new feature coming to its Xbox Kinect that allows the camera system to detect facial movements and project them in real-time onto a digital character. The chat feature is called Avatar Kinect.

Game-related displays took up as much as half of the big two companies' booths.

The Xbox, which has sold 50 million consoles since launch, could be found on displays throughout Microsoft's booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center's central hall.

One setup showed Kinect video chat features; another let people play popular Xbox 360 games; and taking up a sizable portion on the part of the booth facing the entrance were the transparent pods Microsoft used at E3 to let people try out Kinect.

Xbox product manager David Dennis said the increased focus was because the Xbox 360 "really hit its stride this year." Kinect's prominence in the displays should please many divisions of Microsoft developers, not just those focused on games.

"It's really been an effort from all across Microsoft to develop Kinect," Dennis said. "The Xbox itself has become about more than just games."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said something similar in his CES keynote, which led, tellingly, with the Xbox news followed by a presentation about mobile gaming.

"Your Xbox is becoming the hub of your living room," he said onstage. "It is your gaming system; it is your movies; it is your TV experience."

The Xbox acts as a DVD and music player. With an internet connection, owners can download media and chat with friends. Bobby Kotick, CEO of "Call of Duty" publisher Activision, says console games can be as integral to young people's social lives as Facebook and text messaging.

With Kinect, Microsoft thinks people generally opposed to complex console games will be more likely to give it a shot since it doesn't require manipulating a controller. The system uses a camera to track body movements and reflects those onscreen. A microphone on the camera lets users navigate with their voice, rather than fumbling with a controller.

The Kinect itself is a rather innovative gadget, which makes it right at home at CES. Ballmer announced at his keynote that Microsoft sold 8 million Kinect units in the first 60 days, bolstered by the holiday season.

Sony used the conference to demonstrate, among other things, its own game-centric gadget called the Move.

PlayStation 3 systems, many of which were playing Move-enabled games, took up a sizable portion of the center of Sony's booth, which was located on the opposite end of the central hall in relation to Microsoft's. PlayStation Portable systems were also displayed.

The PlayStation Move consists of neon ice-cream-cone-looking remotes that act like a more accurate version of Nintendo's Wii remote. Players can wave that wand in order to swing a baseball bat or jab with a sword.

Sony has sold 41.6 million PlayStation 3 consoles and 4.1 million of the relatively new Move controllers as of November.

"With the Move, we're reaching a whole new demographic in kids and casual gamers," said PlayStation spokeswoman Melissa Dolan.

The PlayStation has also become a "whole-entertainment hub," she said. Like the Xbox, it plays music and videos, in addition to games, and also has a Web browser.

But the PlayStation 3's high profile at CES is "primarily because of the introduction of 3-D gaming," Dolan said.

In an October interview, Sony marketing executive Peter Dille also sang the praises of 3-D on the PlayStation 3. Games aside, the system can play 3-D Blu-rays and movie downloads. He suggested the Xbox 360 is ill-suited to displaying 3-D content in the way the PlayStation can.

The 3-D phenomenon is important to Sony's television and media businesses, as evidenced by what was shown at the company's CES booth, and as Microsoft Game Studios vice president Phil Spencer suggested in an interview last year.

But it wasn't just Sony showing 3-D. Most major TV manufacturers had, for the second year in a row, a laser-sight focus on the technology.

Capitalizing on that, Nintendo rented meeting rooms in Las Vegas to demonstrate its 3DS hand-held system, which can display 3-D without needing special glasses.

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